My Stumbling Block in Writing: Forgetting Heteronormativity
About a month ago, I wrote a short literary story titled “Valence.”
“Valence” is about a character who has trouble discerning emotions: she can feel the strength, or valence, of an emotion—without necessarily being able to identify what said emotion is. It’s the story of how she falls in love with a man named Victor who doesn’t return those feelings, and they maintain a very close relationship before, during and after. My protagonist fails to notice when the love turns toxic and comes closer to loathing—and so it ends in tragedy.
The story is written in first person, entirely from my protagonist’s perspective. It jumps back and forth between her past with Victor, and her present, where she’s on the opposite end of the same thing, as a friend of hers named Victoria mistakes a toxicity in their relationship for romantic love.
The Cycle of Bewildering Feedback
I wrote a draft, edited it, and sent it out to beta readers, feeling pretty happy with the story. When the first beta reader said she liked it but was confused about the perspective shift between Victor and Victoria, I figured she simply hadn’t understood the story. It happens sometimes. I told her that the perspective was neither Victor’s nor Victoria’s, but a nameless third person, and went back to my manuscript to make a few minor edits.
To my surprise, she began to argue with me, insisting that the perspective did shift between characters. She could see that there was a third person there near the end, she said, but this was definitely a story about how Victoria and Victor had a convoluted relationship and Victoria killed Victor. Why was there a third person there? And why was the end so confusing? And did I know that I was using past tense sometimes and present tense at others?
I realized my mistake: because I jumped around in time, only one of the eight segments of the story referenced both Victoria and Victor near the end. Most of them had only a “me” and a Victoria, or a “me” and a Victor. I added a few more mentions of Victor in the Victoria segments, and felt satisfied that I’d solved the problem.
Yet my next few beta readers said the very same things as the first. They liked it, but were very confused by the sudden appearance of a mysterious third character near the end. One even mentioned that she was confused about why Victor occasionally seemed to refer to himself in the third person.
I resigned myself to giving my main character a name. I named her Chen (an androgynous Jewish name more often used for girls, pronounced “Ken”) and inserted her name in one strategic place. I added references to her background that would distinguish her from Victoria.
Imagine my frustration when my next reader was still confused.
I had to take a step back and take a long, hard look at the story. The story never made sense if it was from the perspectives of Victor and Victoria; it was even worse now, after all my edits. There were so many plot holes, so many inconsistencies if the story was interpreted that way. So why did people keep insisting on reading it that way?
The Source of the Problem—At Last
My greatest weakness in writing is knowing exactly how much to say in order for my meaning to be conveyed to the average reader. Too often I’ve written stories where beta readers are confused because they missed one line somewhere early on, and the information from that one line was crucial to their understanding of the whole story. This is to say nothing of the passages that I’ve written with one meaning in mind, only to learn later that they are most often read with a very different meaning that makes less sense in the context of the story overall. I’m much better at catching these and compensating for this than I used to be.
“Valence” proved that I’m very much still learning, because when I finally realized my mistake, it was astonishingly simple. Victor and Victoria were of opposite genders. If I’d made both of them men, or both of them women, this would never have been a problem. But because they’re of opposite genders, it simply doesn’t immediately register with most readers that there could be one person having these convoluted relationships with both of them at different points in time. The easiest, most natural reading for most people is that these two characters of opposite gender have a convoluted relationship with each other.
I inserted Chen’s name in prominent parts of conversation in the first scene with Victoria, and the first scene with Victor. I inserted headers over each part, dividing the story into 4 segments:
0. Before Victor
1. The Beginning of Victor and Me
2. The End of Victor and Me
3. After Victor
Surely now, finally, there could be no more confusion.
My first beta reader after this change was still confused, and I nearly despaired. I went so far as to linearize the storytelling to make it as clear as possible. But as I was doing this, I got feedback from a few more beta readers, overwhelmingly positive and with comments that made it clear that at last they had been able to follow the story.
I went back to the a-linear storytelling structure, reassured.
“Fray”: My Experimental Story
My difficulty with “Valence” is actually not the first time I’ve had this sort of problem with people’s interpretation of a work of mine. The difference is that last time it was entirely on purpose.
About five years ago, I wrote a short story that I called “Fray.” At the time, I used to regularly enter my story into consideration at Sixfold. (In case you are unaware: Sixfold is a literary journal without an editor choosing which stories make it. When you enter your story into consideration, you also commit to reading, rating and reviewing 6 stories each for 3 rounds: a total of 18 stories. If you miss the deadline to rate the stories you’re assigned for any of the rounds, your story is pulled out of the running. You rate the stories by ranking: you rank the 6 stories that you had to read from your favorite to your least favorite. You can also offer the author feedback if you like; something I always tried to do, as this was the reason why I liked submitting my work here.)
For some reason, I never submitted a normal, simple story to Sixfold—not that I write many normal, simple short stories to begin with. But I always submitted the weirdest things I had, the most bizarre writings of mine that I was nonetheless ridiculously fond of. (If you’re interested in seeing what I mean, the stories “Maple Wood” and “Flight” are among ones I submitted to Sixfold.)
I don’t know what made me decide to deliberately screw with my readers.
I had this little short story called “Fray.” It was about a closeted bisexual man and his out-and-proud best friend. This protagonist has been dating a woman he doesn’t really care for, and at the start of the story their relationship falls apart. He takes comfort in his best friend and finally admits his dirty secret: he’s in love with him. The best friend, in a loving and committed relationship, is sympathetic but unreceptive. The main character accepts the heartbreak but finds that perhaps because of his new self-acceptance, his strained relationship with his family isn’t as difficult as it once was.
So here’s what I did: I took “Fray,” and I removed as many gender indicators as I realistically could.
The only person it was impossible to make un-gendered was the best friend. He was too central to the story—trying to avoid using pronouns for him would have been entirely unnatural. It was in first person, so the protagonist’s gender was already obscure. The girlfriend at the start and the best friend’s boyfriend were given gender-ambiguous names and never referred to using pronouns.
For the final touch, I added one solitary reference to the protagonist being a man: this line I placed at the end of the middle, where the relationship dynamics of all the characters are already clear.
Then I stuck it into the running at Sixfold and waited and watched.
To my amusement, one of my reviewers was outright frustrated. He couldn’t tell which characters were what gender, he said, and that was distracting and frustrating. Another reviewer left me a stream-of-consciousness review that showed me that he was frustrated through most of the story—until he hit the mention that the main character was male, at which point he had to go back to the beginning, apparently fascinated by the “gender-bending” and now concluding that they all must be gay men.
I smiled to myself. I thought, “How interesting,” and went on with my life. This story was discarded and forgotten until recently, when I decided to try submitting it to journals for real. (Fingers crossed that it gets published in the next few months!)
Even in this day and age, readers don’t see gay and bisexual characters unless your writing forces them to see it. Perhaps this is obvious to people who are not me, but it’s already surprised me more than once. It’s a recurring anthropological lesson that I keep on forgetting.
Most recently, a short story of mine where sexuality wasn’t even an issue (I thought) got a teasing comment from a reviewer. After the death of a woman, her widower marries a man—not a big event, just something that happens in the background—and a beta reader commented on how he hadn’t been open about his sexuality until that point. I snarked back at her, referencing the Kinsey scale. She apologized, saying she didn’t know why she found the character’s bisexuality jarring in that story, when she hadn’t had that problem in another story of mine.
The problem was simple. I hadn’t introduced this character as bisexual in the text at all. So when the character formerly exhibiting heteronormative behavior suddenly exhibits homosexual behavior, a reader doesn’t have to be homophobic to find it jarring.
There are many writers who forget to humanize a gay or transgender or colored character beyond personality traits that are somehow related to those things. I have read many such stories. I’m in the opposite camp: I keep forgetting that this is still not quite a societal norm, so I must ease my readers into it—or at least make sure that everything is explicitly stated.
Does this mean I’ve been doing something fundamentally wrong, that I’ve hit this one stumbling block multiple times from different angles? No, I don’t think so at all. In fact, I’m a little happy to discover that my brain apparently has been living in a world where heteronormativity is an oft-forgotten afterthought. However, as a writer, I feel that I must be able to convey my meaning to people whose minds don’t necessarily work the same way as mine. I might choose not to do this from time to time; but most of the time, I want a story to at least be comprehensible to the average reader. So I have a lot more learning to do.
About the Author
Kai Raine is a writer and cognitive scientist who believes in thinking outside the box and questioning assumptions. Kai reads and writes to experience lives and opinions and possibilities beyond her own. She has lived a relatively nomadic life, being born in the US, then growing up mostly in Japan, and spending most of her early adult life in Europe. She has a BA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and MScs from the University of Trento and the University of Osnabrück. Kai is the author of the fantasy novel These Lies That Live Between Us. Visit her at http://www.kairaine.com/.